On Labels and Differentiation

Most of us believe Albert Einstein was a brilliant physicist who invented a new form of physics derived from  the Theory of Relativity, that enabled us to gain more insights about the universe then the previous paradigm of Newtonian physics allowed. But Einstein was a deep philosophical thinker as well. Let me share with you one of my favourite quotes from him:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the “Universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.

This is of course a manifestation of the duality problem – our desire to be separate and unique. This “optical delusion of consciousness” leads us to accentuate our relatively minor differentiators such as race, religion, nationality, politics, gender and so on to the expense of our commonality as human beings.

It is a cause of great concern to me that many activists pursue causes that highlight these differentiators whilst ignoring our common humanity. Every human being is multifaceted. We diminish our humanity as soon as we try to label each other in terms of such differentiators.

I guess it is a problem that pretty well all of us suffer from (I know I have succumbed from time to time as well). We just apply a label and assume that explains everything about a particular person.

If I look out my window and I tell you I see a tree, how do you respond? It is unlikely that you would just say, “Yep! I know trees. It is one of those leafy things with branches.” It is more than likely you would want to know what kind of tree it is. Is it for example a eucalypt, a conifer, a fruit tree of some sort, a palm tree or whatever? Maybe you might wish to know whether it is vigorous or stunted, small or large, young or old or trained in some way eg topiaried or bonsaied? The label “tree” might help us differentiate it from other plants such as vines, shrubs, grasses, succulents, or herbs, but it could hardly be said to be a comprehensive description.

When we label people we fall into the same trap. If I say someone is Jewish, a feminist, a Norwegian, homosexual or a “lefty”, I should be aware of how limited that description is. If I say for example, “Oh Tony Abbott, he is just a reactionary conservative,” and think because I have now labelled him I have defined him then I am surely wrong. Conservatives vary dramatically in their beliefs about politics, but more importantly, beyond this they have many dimensions beyond their political beliefs.

These one-dimensional labels seem to be used more frequently in the political, religious, social and gender related arenas. It is more likely that we are going to assume we have described someone adequately if we have labelled them as “gay” or “progressive” or “racist”, than if we had bothered to label them as a “musician” or “left-handed” or “colour blind”. No doubt the things we get emotive about are more likely to promote the use of labels.

I have explored with you in previous essays that we are all shaped by biological as well as biographical factors. So let us look at one of the labels and see how much it constrains our perceptions. We could have looked at any of the general classifications above and made the same argument, but for convenience let us look at religion.

It is hard to deny that Catholicism has been a very conservative force in Western history. Yet there are many people who call themselves Catholic who now challenge traditional church doctrines about sexuality and birth control, the role of women, papal infallibility and other traditional platforms of the Catholic Church. Liberal Catholics are now questioning the notion of promoting celibacy in the priesthood and warn against denigrating homosexuals.

So I guess we need to be very careful about labelling, because the human condition is not easily caught in this way. We are so diverse, because, as I have asserted before, those determinants of our human nature, our biological and biographical histories, are themselves so diverse.

In recent decades our neuroscientists have discovered that we have “resonance circuits” in the brain. This follows the discovery of “mirror neurons” which fire in our brains in response to the intentional actions of others. Neuroscientist, Daniel Siegel explains:


We make maps of intention using our cortically based mirror neurons and then transfer this information downward to our subcortical regions. A neural circuit called the insula seems to be the information superhighway between the mirror neurons and the limbic areas, which in turn send messages to the brainstem and the body proper. This is how we can come to resonate physiologically with others – how even our respiration, blood pressure and heart rate can rise and fall in synchronism with another’s internal state. These signals from our body, brainstem, and limbic areas then travel back up to the insula to the middle prefrontal areas. I’ve come to call this set of circuits – from mirror neurons to subcortical regions, back to the middle prefrontal areas – the ‘resonance circuits.’ This is the pathway that connects us to one another.


So we now know that there are biological reasons why we can empathise with others. Whilst this is a wonderful thing, it is easy to overstate its importance.

Our problem arises when, because we can empathise with someone else, we assume we can have the same subjective experience that they do. Our subjective experience, as we saw above, is coloured by both our biological and biographical histories none of which can possibly be the same for any two people. Although we normally mean well when we say, “I know just how you feel,” it is nigh impossible that two people will ever feel the same. But you might argue neuroscientists mapping our brain response will confirm that, for example, when you and I feel anger identical parts of our brain are stimulated. But there is no guarantee and little likelihood that our subjective experience of the same neural stimuli will therefore be similar.

I can remember quoting to you in a previous essay from the marvellous paper by Thomas Nagel What does it mean to be a Bat? And of course the answer is that we can never know. Just as it is true for me that I can never know:

  • What it means to be a holocaust survivor.
  • What it means to be a woman.
  • What it means to be an Olympic champion.
  • What it means to be Italian.
  • What it means to be indigenous.

And so on.

We empathise with another but we can never stand directly in their shoes. Whilst I can recognise, for example, that you are feeling sad I can only presume that you feel sadness similar to me because I have no way of directly knowing.

[Consider then the difficulty children might experience in carrying out the exercise recommended by the Safe Schools program of imagining that they had no genitalia! Whatever you might think of the appropriateness of such a program and I would again protest that sexual orientation is only one of many factors that define us and if we were serious about dealing with bullying we might want to give the same emphasis to understanding differences in body shape, intellect, sporting prowess, personality factors, economic background, racial origins and so on. But to top it off there is no way any of us with genitals could possibly know what it was like to have none.]

This is but another attempt to override the multifaceted nature of human beings with our selective ways of differentiating each other. Every time we thoughtlessly use a label (such as gender or gender orientation) it demeans us because it focusses on such a small part of our humanity.

So, I guess I have saddled you with a very large dilemma here. On the one hand I started this essay with a quote from Einstein seeking us to extend our sense of who we are more and more broadly. On the other hand I have shown that a human is a multi-faceted being that defies the convenient labelling we would some time wish to use.

We have seen in other essays how it is our ego that wishes to accentuate our differentiation. There is a basic insecurity in those who want to identify as Australian, Liberal, Islamic, Monarchist, Feminist or whatever. They tend to lose sight of their humanity and even more so that of others in this process.

The Upanishads of Hinduism use a powerful metaphor to explain this phenomenon. They posit that the Universal soul is Brahman. Brahman gives rise to individual souls, Atman that whilst they are really part of Brahman become so deluded as to believe they are separate and autonomous. The major theme of Hinduism is the struggle for Atman to be again reconciled with Brahman.

I used a couple of other metaphors in trying to understand this dilemma in a poem I used in Augustus Finds Serenity. Let me finish by sharing that with you.


When I sense injustice in the world,

It is only my small self with other small selves clashing

Like droplets of water in the ocean

Oblivious of the tides and waves awashing,

Believing our bustling and modest little motions,

Were the mainstream of the ocean’s might;

As though the waning of a few fireflies

Was what caused the very darkness of night.


What a paradox it is that when I look out

I see these small droplets striving for recognition,

Seeking to enhance their own sense of identity,

Pushing and churning in senseless oblivion

Of the all-embracing, eternal ocean

That swells to a greater wisdom of its own

Beyond the vanity of selfish comprehension

That has no purpose but unconditional love alone.


But yet when I perchance look in

The droplet is the ocean, the ocean the droplet too.

By looking in I magically get without

Where there is no boundary to divide the many from the few.

We are all the ocean, there is no separate self

That must compete with other selves to meaningfully exist.

The divide is gone, the barrier down, no fear now

That love is here and knowing that such love will persist.


When I feel inadequacy in my world

It is only my small being unaware of its belonging

Like a brilliant sunbeam depressed because

It has forgotten that it is from the sun becoming.

Such a little light seeking to compete with

Other little lights for its transient recognition,

Forgetting that it is part of all light

That ever touched the universe in its illumination.


What a paradox it is that when I look out

I see these small rays competing for the light,

Striving to outshine each brilliant other

To assert their dominating might.

A clash of sparklets in such intense display

That they never look back at their common source

And in their ignorance and sad dismay

Believe each alone must run its singular course.


But when I perchance look in

The sunbeam is the sun, the sun the sunbeams too.

By looking in I magically get without

Where there is no boundary to divide the many from the few.

We are all the sun, there is no separate self

That must compete with other selves to meaningfully exist.

The divide is gone, the barrier down, no fear now

That love is here and knowing that such love will persist.


4 Replies to “On Labels and Differentiation”

  1. It’s always been true that a smile gets you a smile, anger gets you anger and violence creates violence. Never realised that we had identified the brain pathways that create this mirroring though. This knowledge still does not make it any easier to break the negative emotional cycles and replace them with positive ones though. An eye for an eye has been around a long time. Maybe we should be learning skills to reinforce positive emotional cycles in our schools. After all we are taught to exercise the different parts of our body why not learn to exercise the different parts of humanity, our human interactions. How to behave in a positive way to negative emotions we receive from the rest of humanity. In some parts of the world this has been taught for centuries but these places are sadly still considered a bit backward by many in the West.

    1. You touch on some very important areas here, Greg. I remember thinking many years ago if only we could clone the good Dr Phil so that every child could hear his discourse on “What it means to be human” how much better off we would be.

      It is not too hard to free ourselves from the inclination to be dominated by our negative emotions. Quite a few of those I have coached have managed to do this. If we increase our awareness (Anthony De Mello) or improve our “mindfulness” (one of the goals of Buddhism) we give ourselves the opportunity of not identifying with our negative emotions but responding in a more considered fashion.When we are consumed by our negative emotions and respond accordingly we hurt ourselves (see “Silence is the Answer” by Robert Draper or if you are really committed read “A Course in Miracles” by Helen Schucman.)

      And of course you are right. It makes sense that we should teach our children how to train their minds so that they are not held hostage by negative emotions.

  2. Gosh!!
    It certainly gives one a lot to think about here Ted.

    The power of one can be so … individually powerful.

    Also, We Are One – one species – one race of red-blooded creatures.

    On one planet, Earth, so large from where we sit and gaze from our windows at the sun and the moon – yet just a speck in our universe, which is a speck in the ocean of the Milky Way – and again, another speck ….

    1. It is a wonderful paradox Lynda that whilst we are individually so insignificant we still share the only thing in the universe that is truly divine – our consciousness!

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